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Invasion of the Potential Snatchers: these Ducks must go from good to great to win another conference title

In any memorable season there must be athletes who rise up and achieve everything that is within them.  Jeff Maehl was a solid player for three years, but as a senior he became a great one.  Look at his four-year numbers, from espn.com:

2010 77 1076 14.0 81 12 1 -1 -1.0 0 0
2009 53 696 13.1 73 6 1 -2 -2.0 0 0
2008 39 421 10.8 65 5 11 81 7.4 17 0
2007 9 118 13.1 33 1 3 34 11.3 20 0

With 1,076 yards and a school-record 12 touchdowns as a senior, Maehl became the kind of clutch receiver teams rely on to achieve a great season. He made every big catch Oregon needed for 13 games.   Which Ducks will accept the challenge to grow into great players in 2011? 

The candidates come in pairs:

David Paulson and Kenjon Barner  

Keep in mind, inclusion on this list isn’t a suggestion the player has underachieved or disappointed in the past.  We don’t roll that way here.  Instead the emphasis is these are good players who have the potential to stun the league with their development, become the kind of difference makers that produce first downs, touchdowns and big plays that win games, like Maehl’s 145-yard, three-touchdown effort against USC.

Paulson and Barner have been wonderful players, but they have an opportunity this year.  A lot of offensive production must be replaced in Maehl and Drew Davis, and Barner and Paulson are two guys who could double their numbers.  They’re that good.  Barner was slowed by injuries last year, a groin against Portland State, a head trauma versus the Cougars.  He showed the kind of special player he can be with a brilliant 5-touchdown performance against New Mexico, a 80-yard punt return versus Tennessee, and a slashing, inspired game in the Civil War, running 15 times for 133 yards and a touchdown, catching a cross-the-grain swing pass for another score.  If Barner stays healthy this season and blossoms in his TAZR role, he could have a Bobby Moore-like season.  Duck fans love the purposeful way he runs, so very efficient slashing in and through the hole with one cut.  He’s a tremendous change of pace from his good friend and backfield mate LaMichael James.  In the clinching drive against Cal it was Barner who zipped straight ahead, tearing off chunks of yards as the Ducks put together an 18-play 9:25 drive to clinch the game.  He followed his blocks.  He ran with discipline and took care of the ball.  It wasn’t flashy, but it was a clutch performance.  Barner has the heart of greatness and an inspired burst of speed.  If he puts together 1000-1500 all-purpose yards or more, the Oregon offense will achieve its full potential in Chip Kelly year three.

Paulson’s story is similar in that he’s been a solid player for the Ducks, but he could join the ranks of great Oregon tight ends in 2011. Darron Thomas needs someone to rely on for those crucial first downs, someone who will hang on to the ball in traffic.  Here are Paulson’s numbers for the first two years, again from espn.com:

2010 24 418 17.4 61 4 0 0 0.0 0 0
2009 12 185 15.4 32 0 0 0 0.0 0 0

So far his statistical trend line has been remarkably similar to Maehl’s. While we don’t expect the rushing numbers to improve, Paulson’s reliability and toughness over the middle make him a prime candidate to emerge as an Oregon leader this year.  Get him the ball 50 times for 800-900 yards and 10 touchdowns, and the offense has the versatility and consistency to finish the job they started in 2010.

Darrion Weems and Hamani Stevens/Karrington Armstrong/Hroniss Grasu

Oregon’s offensive line has two solid building blocks in Mark Asper and Carson York. but Steve Greatwood needs Darrion Weems to become a solid, durable, dependable left tackle, and the winner of the Stevens/Armstrong/Grasu battle to be a reliable center.  Left tackle is the most crucial role on the offensive line, and the timing of Oregon’s offense depends on the center in two ways: snaps have to be consistent, and the center has to work with the guards to prevent inside penetration by defensive tackles from disrupting the timing of the offense.  Jordan Holmes was a great Duck, but he didn’t have a good game versus Nick Fairley.  To be fair, almost no one did.  But looking forward, because that’s what we do, the starting center has to do his job and win his share of the line of scrimmage.

Oregon has only lost four games with Chip Kelly as head coach, and each time they’ve lost, they’ve lost the battle up front, particularly in the interior.  To beat LSU, Stanford, USC and the rest of the schedule, the line must gel, and the critical part of that is the development of these two guys, Weems at left tackle and the new center.

Terrell Turner, Ricky Heimuli and Dion Jordan

The Ducks graduated three very good defensive linemen in Kenny Rowe, Brandon Bair and Zac Clark.  And the defensive line wasn’t enough of a factor in the loss to Auburn.  The entire defensive line has to have a great year in 2011, but these guys are key. Heimuli is 6-4, 320, fierce and unblockable in spring, and seems ready to achieve his four-star potential.  He has the chance to be the big, physical defensive tackle who puts to rest the idea that Oregon can’t compete with big offensive lines and gets dominated in big games.  No amount of time to prepare can counteract a strong, quick, agile defensive tackle who plays with determination.  If Heimuli wants to reach the NFL and help his family, he has the perfect opportunity this year.  He’ll start. The Ducks are counting on him to be great.  He has all the physical tools in the world.

Jordan had flashes of brilliance throughout spring, including two sacks in the Spring Game.  After a year of apprenticeship transitioning from receiver to defensive end, he seems ready to put things together.  He has an awesome physical package, long and athletic at 6-7 230.  He’ll be faster and more agile than any linemen who lines up across for him.  He’s learned the techniques and moves of the drop end position and gotten stronger.  It’s his turn to be a dominant player, if he has enough desire and aggression to accept the challenge.  Here’s the vision for him: The Preying Mantis, voracious and unstoppable, changing games. If Dion makes big plays and assaults backfields, the Ducks could have a dominating defense.

I cheated a little by adding Terrell Turner to this pair, but his role is also crucial.  He’s a senior who’s been productive for three seasons, with 33 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss last season.  He says he’s ready to be the vocal leader of the defensive line, and that’s critical as he’s surrounded by younger players.  Turner had 7 tackles and a sack and a half against Arizona State.  That’s the way he can play, the football player he can be.  He’s way more than a football player, with an ebullient personality and quick humor that’s made him a minor media star, but on Saturdays, he must strap on the helmet and accept the challenge to be better, to get the most out of his 6-3, 273-lb frame.  Turner is a strong athlete.  From Crenshaw High like De’Anthony Thomas, he benches 405 lbs., and in 2010 he made the Oregon Iron Club with three combined lifts of 1204 lbs. (bench, clean and squat).  Like Heimuli and Jordan, Turner has all the physical tools to be a difference maker.  He has to make plays, starting in Dallas.

Michael Clay and Dewitt Stuckey

They’re the inside linebackers, and that means they have to provide the hit and stop in the Oregon defense.  They have to put ball carriers on the ground and take charge. For Stuckey, he’s been a journeyman for three years, worked hard in the gym, bided his time.  Now he gets the call.  He needs to produce a 60-to-70 tackle season, and if he does, the Oregon defense has a backbone and a leader to replace Casey Matthews.  Clay has all-league talent.  He shined as a freshman in spot duty, and he had 42 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery as a sophomore.  Fans will remember him for his long rumble with a fake punt in the Civil War.  His job in 2011: be the man at linebacker.  Realize his potential. Play like a warrior.  If he does, and achieves a Jeff Maehl-like improvement, the Oregon defense has teeth and claws, and a solid linebacker to replace the smart, reliable Paysinger.  Paysinger himself tabbed Clay and Terrance Mitchell as the two young defenders to watch this season, saying both had the potential to be stars.

Anthony Gildon and Terrance Mitchell

The Ducks won’t have Cliff Harris for LSU, and maybe a couple of games more.  The role of Gildon and Mitchell is vital regardless, because the PAC-12 is an offense-first, talent-rich, pass-happy league.  John Neal has to have these two guys ready to compete against Nick Foles, Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, Marquess Wilson, Markus Wheaton and a host of others.  It’s particularly important for both of them to be equally ready, because many teams in the conference employ multiple receiver sets. It doesn’t do any good for one corner to lock down if the other gives an 8-yard cushion and chases receivers with his back to the ball.  Gildon and Mitchell both have good speed, good cover skills and they tackle well.  Talmadge Jackson is gone and Harris is earning his way back  He’s made some very significant progress in the last couple of weeks, but still.  Gildon and Mitchell have to be ready to play and keep the Ducks out of explosion plays and exploitable matchups out wide.  They have to be capable, consistent and effective, or the defense doesn’t work.  Many times they’re out on an island, and they just have to be tough and confident.

Both have tremendous athletic tools.  They’re fast enough and they’ve been in the system long enough. Gildon can jump out of the gym, a 39.5-inch vertical leap.  Terrance Mitchell ran and received for 2,360 yards and 24 touchdowns as a high school senior.  They’re not giving anything up physically to any receiver they’ll face this year, but they’ll have to make plays when the lights go on.  And the contributing players in the secondary, like Dior Mathis, Troy Hill, Avery Patterson, Brian Jackson, Erick Dargan and others, have to be ready to execute.  They made the plane, now they have to fly to the ball at game time.